Laura Bell Bundy on: Musical bloopers, Charlie Sheen & Coming back to Broadway
A cheery voice chimed through the phone when I picked up:
“Hi Robert, It’s Laura Bell Bundy!”
Her words immediately beamed a ray of sunshine into the room, melting the blizzard like conditions of the east coast from my mind.
Laura has proudly deemed the titles: “the Ambassador of Good Times”, “keeper of the bourbon," “Kentucky Wildcat," “mommy to the canine community," and “the Mayor of Crazytown," among others, but perhaps can best be described as pure light. For a self-proclaimed “hot mess”, The Kentucky native certainly seems to have her fried chicken in the bucket. LBB has had an overflow of success across the board, creating bold performances on Broadway (most notably her Tony nominated turn as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde the Musical), television (stints on How I Met Your Mother, Anger Management & Hart of Dixie) and film (including: Dreamgirls) from an early age. She even managed to break into the country music scene, releasing several albums and hit singles. LBB's achievements are no surprise, as the skilled entertainer has her intentions in the right place.
“The motivation is not to be famous, it’s to have fun until I drop dead.”
Fresh off a scenic hike in the California sun, Laura called to discuss: some career ups and hilarious downs, what it’s really like working with Charlie Sheen, some great advice for aspiring performers and a possible Broadway return. Read on for a good time!
RP: First of all, what made you get into acting?
LBB: My mother! [Laughs]… You know, I was a kid actor. I was always a very imaginative child. Playing for me was playing house or creating characters out of every one of my dolls and talking to myself. My sisters were pretty much out of the house when I was a kid. I was pretty lonely. So I think that made me get into acting because I was kind of fond of “pretend”.
My mom had me in dance, music and children’s theatre in Kentucky – all that kind of stuff. When I was five my mom entered me in a local pageant, and I won! And then I went to the state level and I won! And then I went to the national level, and I won! I won a new car at five.
RP: Oh Wow…
LBB: I swear to God! I do say if I ever wrote a book about my life it would be called “If JonBenét lived.” [Laughs]. Anyway, there was this opportunity for us to go to New York City and be on the Phil Donahue Show because they were going to do this special on children’s pageants. Turns out to be an expose and it was a horrible experience, but, nevertheless, it brought us to New York. My mom walked me down to the Ford Modeling Agency and was like, “I sent her picture from Kentucky and you said that you would like to see us if we were in town, and we’re here now!” [Laughs]. They were like “What? You have to make an appointment”, but she said, “We’re leaving tomorrow, so”… So they saw me and signed me to a five-year contract!
So starting at six years old I would come to New York for the summers and do modeling and then commercials. Then when I was nine, I auditioned for the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall and I got the show! I had to stay in New York for a year. When I did that show I met a man name Marvin Laird who was writing a musical that eventually became Ruthless. That kept me in New York for a number of years before I moved back to Kentucky for high school. So that’s pretty much how I got started. [Laughs]. That’s kind of the long story!
RP: I love the long story! Would you say that experience, along with your classes, was sort of your “training” then?
LBB: I think, for me, training has always been the experience and the people I was around – the directors, the other performers, etc. My mom had me in private dance lessons. I would go to Broadway Dance as a kid! I also studied at school of American Ballet for two years. I had singing coaches – I was classically trained by Julio Iglesias’ cousin and he worked with all the people from the Met. So my mom was extremely aware that I was singing a lot of belt, as a kid, and she was like - it’s so much funnier to do it in her accent! - “You can not just be singing screaming, you gotta learn how to sing properly!”. So I would have to be singing these Italian arias when I was eleven and twelve years old. It was hysterical!
“If you don’t have anything to fall back on, you don’t fall back.”
I didn’t necessarily go to a school for acting, but I had individualized lessons – must have been a fortune [Laughs]. Then when I went to college – I went to NYU - I didn’t go to school for acting. My dad really wanted me to have something else to fall back on. My philosophy is: If you don’t have anything to fall back on, you don’t fall back… because you can’t. If you have something to fall back on, it diverts your attention, and you fall back – because it’s easy.
I ended up going to NYU for sociology/ psychology. I never finished. I dropped out. Well, I deferred when I was doing Guiding Light at eighteen. Then I went back when I was doing Hairspray - I was going to college during the day. Then after that I was like oh screw it! [Laughs].
RP: That must have been crazy!
LBB: [Still Laughing]. I was like, “I don’t need to do this”!
RP: I would say, studying Psychology definitely relates to acting though.
LBB: Absolutely. ABSOLUTELY! No doubt about it. I think it really actually helped me to understand human behavior, in terms of being an actor, more so than maybe going to an acting class would have helped me at that time.
RP: One hundred percent…. Well, thank you Mom and Dad, right? They totally helped you out.
LBB: Yeah! I have amazing parents. I mean all parents have wishes for you. They want you to do the things they did that were right, and they want you to avoid the mistakes they made.
With my mom, it was really all about the performance and getting better in that way. And with my dad it was about educating myself in a well-rounded way. I think both have served me, because you have to surround yourself with real experiences and real people, and be well read, to properly emote and create a character based on someone real. You can’t base a character on an actor… if you only surround yourself with actors, how are you going to be able to create a real character?
RP: Who would you say is your inspiration, or idol, as a performer?
LBB: Well, I have a few... They were typically women that were triple threats. So, I loved Julie Andrews and Judy Garland growing up and I would impersonate them. I loved Liza Minelli! I loved Tina Turner! I loved Bette Midler! I loved Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton… I just loved these divas. Oh, and Doris Day!
RP: I’d say that you’re similar to Doris Day in a way. Do you find it cool that you’re an inspiration too so many aspiring performers? You’re an idol to countless girls I’m sure…
LBB: That is crazy weird to me! [Laughs]. It’s funny that you say Doris Day – I get that a lot! Which is cool because I was a fan of hers before.
I mean, yeah, it’s crazy to me that I get young girls saying, “You’re the reason I entered acting”. Or I’ll get tweets from people. It really does blow me away! It’s also very humbling.
If I can make a difference in somebody’s life, or encourage someone to follow their dreams or to take a creative path, then I feel like my job is done. If I’ve inspired someone else, that is more worthwhile than anything else. It’s a really lovely thing to get back.
RP: You’ve definitely done that, but you’re jobs not done – so don’t stop! Out of curiosity, can you recall your worst audition moment?
LBB: [Laughs]. Well I recently had one… I mean I’m having them like every other audition! [Laughs].
RP: That can’t be possible!
LBB: It’s so funny… it does not matter how successful you get, your auditions are always going to be nerve racking! And you will always leave – at least I will – going, “I don’t know if I nailed that or not.” I mean I know when I didn’t… when I bombed something!
My worst audition experience – I will tell you exactly. It was, I believe, for a Susan Stroman show. I was 18, and had come back to New York to start school and stuff. The year before, I had done Paper Mill Playhouse. I went to a dance call. Okay… I consider myself, an Actor/ Singer who moves well. Now, everybody else that’s not in musical theatre would probably consider me a dancer, but compared to dancers who are on Broadway, I move well. [Laughs]. I feel the music. I’ve always got to work a little bit harder than everybody else to get the steps, you know?
“It was so horrible and horrifying! I think in a way, though, it changed the course of my career.”
So I went to this dance call, and I’m telling you what, I was so lost! They learned that combination so fast. I knew how to do all the steps, but my brain could not put them all together that quickly! I needed like 24 hours, okay? Or at least more than fifteen minutes… It was so embarrassing – I didn’t know what I was doing! [Laughs] I was like looking at the people next to me trying to look in the mirror, learning how to do the combinations, and obviously I was cut right away! I never went on a dance call again… ever! I was scared to death to go on a dance call because it was the most terrifying, embarrassing moment. My face and ears and everything were hot! In a way I was like, “I know I can get this! I just need more time! I’m just not this fast”. So I stopped going on those calls. I would only go on the singing auditions and the acting ones. Then after they knew that they liked you they would have you dance. They would go – “Oh well, she’s a good actor so we’ll let her kinda suck at the dancing!” Granted, if it had been tap I would have picked it up. It was so horrible and horrifying! I think in a way, though, it changed the course of my career, because I would just wait and go in for the singing things.
So I’d go on less auditions. I’d wait to go on the other ones and they were for principal characters. If I had been a good dancer, I might not have gotten the principal roles. I think it sucks for some people that are really amazing dancers, because they get stuck in being an amazing dancer. I have so many friends that are such good singers and actors too, but because they’re so good at dancing it can keep them away from principal roles… it’s a blessing and a curse! Not everybody can be a swing – it literally is the hardest job on Broadway! That and a dance captain. I have two best friends that do that all the time and I do not get it at all.
Then I’ve had auditions for my voice class, and that was pretty horrible. I tell you what – Listen, if you are a NYC Casting Director, casting a Broadway show, what are you doing calling people in at 10 am to sing? I mean… what the heck! Especially, if I’ve had a show the night before, I’m not even awake until 11! I’ve got to wake my ass up at 8 o’clock to vocalize, drink tea, steam, put my clothes on, go to your audition and screw up!
RP: I know! Especially in the harsh winter, it should not be allowed!
LBB: It should not be allowed! It should be banned.
RP: We should start a petition.
LBB: I will. I will start a petition!
RP: In the same vein, do you have any funny stage memories that come to mind?
LBB: Dude, I have had some of the funniest stuff happen. I live for things going wrong! [Laughs]. After you’ve done about a hundred performances of the same show you’re like – give me something interesting!
I had my wig fall off three times during Legally Blonde! Oh my God – this is so funny because it was with Orfeh who you just interviewed! I bend and snapped so hard my wig fell off! I was like, “Hey, Paulette, you wanna help me put my hair back on?”. Of course I broke the fourth wall and I was like, “I want to thank you guys for coming to see Legally Bald!”. I had a wig cap on. Then all the girls in the scene took out a hairpin and put it in my wig, but they put my wig on backwards! So the back was in the front and the front was in the back! I had all this hair in my face like “cousin it”… It was hysterical! I couldn’t see – I was blind during the whole dance number of “Bend and Snap”. I was holding my hair to stay on every time I did the bend and snap! The audience was laughing – it was hysterical.
I have gotten the shits during a show…
RP: I saw that! I mean… I obviously didn’t see that, but on Youtube there’s a video of you talking about it.
LBB: [Laughs]. Yeah, that was horrible! I went on for Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked when she got shits! [Laughs]. I think it was a karmic payback for me when it happened to me.
I mean, seriously, doing a show it’s a miracle that everything works! We’ve had the stage open up – that little elevator we had in Legally Blonde – there would be nothing there and we’d have to be working around a hole in the ground. Then people forgetting lines… you know, whatever! There were things that went wrong all the time!
Oh, and when I was ten, I was doing Ruthless in the village. There was a character that was a man in drag and he would put on like three layers of hoes in his dress. He was singing this song called “You’ve Got Talent” and one of the lines is: “You don’t have to get undressed if you’ve got talent”. Well, he didn’t know this, but his skirt had an elastic thing on it and the elastic had, I guess, come undone. His skirt (he couldn’t feel anything) was sliding down and down and down and down… and by the time he said “you don’t have to get undressed if you’ve got talent” his skirt was at his knees! I’m like crying with trying not to laugh! The woman who played my mom on stage, Donna English, she was crying too – that was so amazing!
RP: That’s hysterical! The giggles are the worst weapon, I would say, when you’re on stage – you just can’t control it!
LBB: I live for the moments where you want to laugh and you can’t! I gotta tell you, man, I’m the worst. I break really easy. The reason I think I break easy is that I’m very much a “reactor”. I’m reacting to the other actors on stage when they give me new choices and I’m very present. So if anything outside happens it’s hard for me to not notice. I almost always break the forth wall and acknowledge the moment! I don’t know if I should or not, but it definitely makes the audience feel like they’re there with it being a live performance. I mean how can you keep going when your wig falls off for God sakes!
RP: I think that’s awesome that you do that! I’m glad you bought up Legally Blonde though. Initially, did you have any fears about tackling “Elle” since it was a role that audiences already knew and loved?
LBB: Yeah! Absolutely. Any time you’re taking an iconic character there’s a large responsibility to make it your own and to also please the audience that’s coming to see it and has certain expectation.
I remember when I started working on it. I talked about it with Jerry [Mitchell] and we decided I wouldn’t watch the movie at that point. I’d seen the movie before, but I wouldn’t go and watch that performance, I would try to make the most authentic performance for myself, but keep the characteristics of this idealistic, optimistic, positive, slightly air-headed, perky person who really did have gumption, fearlessness and brains, but she operated differently. So taking those qualities and putting them into a human, you adjust. So, yeah, there was fear, but I also wanted to make it my own so it didn’t appear that I was just doing an impersonation of Reese Witherspoon.
It was very real to me. I was 25 when I started working on the show, no I was 24, no 25 – I don’t know, I don’t remember! I was young. We talked about me making sure that every lyric I sang, every word I said, made sense to me and to Elle. That was empowering for me, because whatever I created for Elle, then I would be able to say – Does this make sense? Does she do this? How would she respond to this? It really allowed me to get involved in the creative process in a way to go “I don’t think she’d say this… I don’t think she’d do it like this… she’d do this…”. [Laughs]. I think Jerry regretted telling me that ever! It really was great because it supported a complete, and holistic character and performance.
RP: Well, you were incredible! I guess you touched on it, but what would you say is the greatest lesson “Elle Woods” taught you?
LBB: That it’s okay to be yourself. I mean it sounds like the most cliché thing ever. We are always told: “be yourself… to thine own self be true.” We are told that all the time, but it takes a lot of investigation to truly understand who you are and what makes you tick. The way that I do it is, I started to study what things give me energy and what things take it away – people, places, things, events, surroundings… Then I kind of started to figure out who I am!
“It was a life altering time in my life.”
It was an interesting thing of this character of Elle Woods that I was playing, there was this evolution that happened within me about being true to myself, about being fearless, about assuming the good in others. I really did learn a lot from her! It was a life altering time in my life. Not only because I was starring in a show, but because I was evolving internally.
RP: I can imagine the stamina you needed for that show; every single performance was intense. How did you keep your voice “whipped” in shape (pun intended)? You were asked to go to some pretty high places.
LBB: Yeah… [Laughs]. That part is more about being an athlete than it is about being anything. You have to be a conditioned athlete. At least I did, especially toward the end. That was hard. I don’t think it’s an 8 show a week part. I think it’s a 7 show a week part. I have a personality of, you know, there’s a wall there, but I go right through it and I look back and realize I went through a wall. A lot of that happened, you know, I would push myself to lengths and not even know I was hurting myself, but I did.
Physically, actually, I was able to dance and move and kind of marathon it. I was fine with that. Vocally, I really, toward the end, would have to just not speak all day before the show. I would do things like – every week I would go and take my voice lesson, get a massage, get therapy to realign all my bones and my jaw and my head and my neck, I would get acupuncture… I was doing all this stuff! [Laughs]. What I figured out about myself was that my body would have to be warm before my voice would wake up. So I would get my “bestie” from the ensemble, my wife Paul Canaan, and we would do a workout to hip hop music that was crazy. Then I would start warming my vocals up.
In the winter right now, if I had a show tonight, I would go to the steam room and warm up in the steam room, get really hot, put on my clothes and be sweating as I was walking to the theatre, but it would be freezing cold outside. I mean, that’s a lot of information… I took care of myself because I didn’t wanna miss shows! I knew audiences were paying a lot of money – I mean it’s expensive to come see a Broadway show and to bring your family. I wanted it to be the best performance it could be so I would really take care of myself. It was hard for sure.
RP: That’s very considerate… I hope everyone is doing that this season because it’s been really cold here!
LBB: It’s funny because I didn’t have to do all that in the beginning. After you’ve done a show for a year and your voice is tired, you have to work harder.
RP: We really miss you on Broadway! Are you going to come back soon?
LBB: It’s funny because I left and went to Nashville. I lived there for five years doing music – I had a great time. Then I ended up getting a television show. So I’ve had all these things get in the way of me kind of going back. I didn’t have the time to dedicate! I am finally in a place where I have no contractual obligations to projects. There’s some flexibility.
I’m so missing it! I went back and did a Carnegie Hall thing in May and it gave me the buzz again. So, yeah, I am really excited to find the right thing again and come back and do 8 shows a week! I needed a break, but I’m ready for that again.
RP: Woohoo! You’ve been doing plenty of amazing projects though. To transition to your film/ television work, there have been a lot of rumors about the upcoming Wicked film. I think you’d be a pretty amazing Glinda! Would you be down?
LBB: Well, shit, I’m not famous enough! I’ll be Nessa Rose. I’d be down to be Glinda, but I’m pretty sure they’re going to go with somebody that’s a big Box Office name.
RP: Film/ TV is a slightly different ball game. Would you say theatre is your first love?
LBB: There is no better feeling than performing live. There will never be any better feeling. It is like crack cocaine – of course, I’ve never tried crack cocaine, but from what I hear it’s better than crack cocaine.
To me performing on a stage is an exchange of love. The actor creates and does this performance with love and then gives it to the audience and the audience has this reaction of love back to the performer and then the performer gives a little bit more and then the audience gives a little bit more… it’s this awesome exchange of love and by the end of it everybody’s in love and off the ground!
“I’ve never tried crack cocaine, but from what I hear it’s better than crack cocaine.”
I could do a movie or television show, but without that live aspect it will never be as rewarding for me. I could do concerts of my own music and feel that, but I think I was built to do theatre. I enjoy the other end and learning that. It’s a different type of acting, a different type of medium.
The multi-camera medium is different than the single-camera medium. Single-camera comedy is different than single-camera drama. Your performance changes as a result of that - at least for me it does.
Some “multi-cameras” have an audience. We didn’t [referring to Anger Management]. I think I would have liked us to have had an audience.
RP: He gets a lot of flack in the media, so I’m curious, how was it working with Charlie Sheen?
LBB: You know it’s funny because a lot of people ask me, “Is he as crazy as people think?” Actually, no, he’s a real human being. We became great friends, and we still ARE great friends. I really respect him. He makes that type of comedy look effortless. I mean his timing is brilliant! He has to memorize pretty much every scene in the show. We shot two episodes in a week and we’d work for, like, two or three weeks and then have two or three off. So he was learning like twenty pages of lines a day and come in there and it was effortless for him!
RP: Well, it looks effortless for you too!
LBB: Well, I’m the person that will, like, sit in my trailer and try to find the funny bits. Charlie just goes and whatever comes out comes out!
“He [Charlie Sheen] has really good intentions. He just has his own demons.”
He is an eccentric person, but he’s also pretty brilliant. He was very generous to me in a lot of ways. I will say, I’ve worked with a lot of “celebrity type people” and I’ve never met one, besides Reba McEntire (who’s one of the best humans I’ve ever met, let alone celebrities), like him. Charlie knew every person in the crew’s name, asked about their family, whenever I brought anybody to the show he would talk to them – he’s not an egotistical person at all! He has really good intentions. He just has his own demons.
It’s interesting, the experience taught me a lot about what not to believe that you hear in the media. At the end of the day, no matter who’s in the media, the bottom line is they’re still a human being. They’ve probably got a lot of amazing things about them. So, don’t judge people. It taught me a lot about judging people and getting good sources.
RP: That’s very good to know. You also play Kelly in the upcoming film After the Reality with Matthew Morrison (your old Hairspray buddy). Can you tell me a bit about that experience?
LBB: Well you know what, I got to make out with Matt Morrison every single night in Hairspray! [Laughs]. So when he called me, I was like, “uh, yeah!” We’ve remained good friends. All of that Hairspray cast, we’re all still very, very close - it’s crazy!
RP: Are you going to do a cast trip to Matt’s new show, Finding Neverland? It’s pretty incredible.
LBB: We probably will! I’m definitely going to go see it. I absolutely support my friends in all of their shows. I plan to get Marissa [Jaret Winokur] to take a trip with me.
Basically, in the film it’s like we did the Bachelor type show, I play the Bachelorette! He’s one of the characters on the show. In the course of it, he gets this tragic news and has to go back home. It’s kind of got this raw, dramatic indie film feeling meets the inside scenes of a reality show – like the reality of a reality show. It’s pretty funny! [Laughs]. It was pretty fun too!
RP: Sounds like a cool concept! On the more dramatic end, I also saw you’re going to be in To Appomattox…
LBB: It’s been in the works for so long. I’m attached to it to play a woman whose husband is a confederate soldier in the Civil War and he goes off and he does not return and she falls in love with a union soldier. It’s a really interesting character to play because she’s truly experiencing and understanding both sides. As a girl from Kentucky, with Southern family, living in New York, I truly understand both sides! [Laughs].
RP: Well as a girl from Kentucky in the entertainment industry, do you have any thoughts on the injustice of women in the industry? Especially on the heels of Patricia Arquette’s recent speech at the Academy Awards.
LBB: It’s interesting because someone was saying to me the other day that there are not enough opportunities for a female director. I think women can do ANYTHING! Anything a man can do, and probably with just slightly more heart!
“I wear a skirt because there’s more room for my balls."
My quote is, “I wear a skirt because there’s more room for my balls”. Women have more tolerance for pain. They’re able to understand the emotional side of things. I’ve seen more women as warriors right now, not just in the industry, but in general. It’s really an interesting time for us because we’re career women, we’re educated, we make money, we make babies… we’re at this really odd cross roads of “do we stay home and take care of our kids and our family?” or “do we got out and hustle!” I’m dealing with that. I think that women have always gotten – “Oh, she’s going to leave and have kids so she’s unreliable”. That kind of sucks.
“Bring on the wrinkles, bitches!”
Also, with women in the industry it’s like the second you get a wrinkle you’re out! You better be good at character roles. Personally, I can’t wait for that, because I like playing characters more than ingénues. [Laughs]. It’s like, “Bring on the wrinkles, bitches!”. [Laughs].
Listen, as far as I’m concerned we’re all created equal and the right person for the job should get it. Doesn’t matter what their private parts are, you know what I’m saying?
RP: I feel you! So, I’m fond of ending on this question because I think it really helps our NYCastings’ readers. What’s your most valuable piece of advice for aspiring performers?
LBB: I think everybody has the ability to be creative, but to choose a career that is truly creative, like performing, it’s such a gift. To be able to know that the thing you enjoy doing most is going to be your career is such a blessing. Not a lot of people get to have that. I think that it requires, when you choose this career, doing everything you can do to be the best actor and performer that you can be. I believe as an actor, singer, songwriter, whatever, etc. you have never arrived… you are constantly learning and being given new information!
Secondly, be fearless. Do not get in your own head. Who gives a shit what anybody else thinks! Every audition is an opportunity for you to play. It’s playing. So keeping that spirit of play as a performer is so important. Go in there because you enjoy doing it, not because you need the job. The mentality of, “I’m going to audition because I get to act – I get to have fun for 15 minutes!” You’ll either be what they want or what they don’t want and it’s okay! I believe that you have to trust that you’re going to get those jobs that you’re supposed to get. So if you go in with this fearless attitude of doing the best you can do and having a great time, then you’re not going to get down on yourself. So I say that’s my advice – being completely open and fearless, not getting in your own way. Train your mind to pick a goal and not let anybody deter you from it. Pick a goal, look at it, and go for it. Don’t let anybody tell you it’s not possible because anything is possible. Anybody who tells you “Oh, that can’t happen” is giving you a great motivation to prove them wrong. Anybody who ever did anything great is the first person who did it and everybody told them they couldn’t.
RP: That’s so true. I love that! Thank you.
LBB: You’re welcome. I know it’s a longwinded way of giving advice. [Laughs].
RP: It’s perfect! Fun fact: I’m actually in a production of Legally Blonde right now in NYC, so I’ve had your voice in my head.
LBB: [Gasp]. Oh my God! I love it. That may be the first time there’s been one in New York since! That’s awesome – snap it out!
RP: Well, I’m playing Warner so I can’t snap too much.
LBB: [Bigger gasp]. Be the best jerk you can be - commit! I’m so happy for you. That’s awesome. Have a great time with the show. Be fearless! I will tell you this, as Warner, it’s really important to still connect with the women on the stage – with Elle and Vivienne. Even though he’s aloof.
RP: Thank you! I don’t think he’s a bad guy. He just makes some bad decisions and, ultimately, doesn’t know what he wants.
LBB: Absolutely. His parents tell him he needs a certain type of girl and he went after it. He didn’t follow his heart.
RP: Exactly. Thank you so much for the advice and your time! You’ve been so generous.
LBB: It was awesome. I love talking to you! It was really nice to meet you… on the phone. [Laughs].
RP: You too! Just keep doing what you’re doing. I love following your career!
Be sure to follow LBB on twitter @LauraBellBundy! She can currently be seen on Hart of Dixie on the CW.
A special thanks to Cassie Carroll (@CasCar27) for her expert editing assistance.